Conviction of Ampatuans seen ‘within 3 years’–lawyer

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/18 November)– A private prosecutor in the continuing Ampatuan Massacre trial has expressed optimism over the national government’s resolve to secure convictions for the principal suspects accused in the grisly manslaughter within the next three years.

Lawyer Prima Quinsayas, counsel for the families of 17 massacre victims, said they remain positive with the progress of the trial and are hopeful of getting early judgments against members of the Ampatuan clan who had been tagged as behind the killing of 58 people, including 32 media workers, at the outskirts of Ampatuan town in Maguindanao on November 23, 2009.

Last May, President Benigno S. Aquino III directed the Department of Justice (DOJ), through Secretary Leila Delima, to “vigorously oppose” attempts to delay the massacre trial in a bid to get the convictions before his term ends in 2016.

“If the President is referring to the principals accused, the members of the Ampatuan family who are already detained, that’s possible,” Quinsayas said in a gathering with journalists at the East Asia Royale Hotel here on Sunday afternoon.

Of the 197 massacre suspects initially charged with multiple murder in 2010, three had been removed from the list due to death, lack of probable cause and dropping from the case’s information.

Quinsayas, who is also the legal counsel of the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists, said 15 of the remaining 194 accused are members of the Ampatuan political clan of Maguindanao.

Eight of them led by patriarch and former Maguindanao governor Andal Ampatuan Sr. had been arrested and already arraigned before the Quezon City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 221, she said.

The seven others are the elder Ampatuan’s sons former Datu Unsay, Maguindanao Mayor Andal Jr., former Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao governor Zaldy, former Maguindanao vice governor Sajid Islam and former Shariff Aguak, Maguindanao Mayor Anwar Sr.; nephew and brother-in-law former Mamasapano, Maguindanao Mayor Akmad Sr.; and, grandsons former Shariff Aguak vice mayor Anwar Jr. and Anwar Sajid.

Quinsayas said a total of 104 massacre suspects have been arrested so far, two of whom have yet to be arraigned.

Out of the 90 suspects who are still at-large, she said seven were members of the Ampatuan clan: former Mamasapano Mayor Bahnarin, Mama, Saudi Jr., Kanor, Moning, Norodin and Harris.

When compared to other cases involving media killings, Quinsayas said the Ampatuan Massacre trial has been moving “quite fast.”

She said that Quezon City RTC Branch 221 Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes has been conducting the hearings twice every week and allotted another day for their motions.

Earlier this month, Quinsayas said the prosecution, which is comprised of private prosecutors and the DOJ’s panel of prosecutors, already rested as to the bail petitions filed by 65 of the accused.

She said the “trial on the merits” of the multiple murder charges for the 37 other accused is presently ongoing.

But Quinsayas said they are facing some challenge as to the progress of the trial with the arrest every now and then of the other massacre suspects.

She said that during the arraignment for the newly-arrested suspects, the prosecution would usually adopt the testimony of the previous witnesses and it will prompt the counsel for the accused to call anew the witnesses for cross examination.

She said the process “goes on and on that there seems no end to it.”

“Still, by 2016, I want to sound positive and say yes that we will already have some convictions,” Quinsayas said.

But while pushing for the early convictions of the principals, she pointed out they don’t want the outcome to include some compromises.

“For instance, say out of the 10 accused only four or six will be convicted while the rest would walk free. We don’t want that compromise,” she said.

Owing to this, Rowena Paraan, chairperson of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), said it’s important for the media sector and the people to remain vigilant as to the developments of the case.

“We should always be on guard and really look at what has been happening on the sidelines,” she said.

Paraan said that NUJP, which earlier launched a countdown for the fourth anniversary of the massacre on November 23, and other allied organizations will continue to monitor the developments of the case and make them known to the public.

“We have a lot of work to do and a long way to go with this case and it’s important that we remain steadfast in our quest for justice for the victims and make sure that people will never forget what happened that day,” she added.

On Nov. 23, 2009, the victims were on their way to Shariff Aguak in Maguindanao to file the certificate of candidacy of then Buluan vice mayor Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu for governor when their convoy was waylaid in Ampatuan town.

Around 100 gunmen allegedly headed by former Datu Unsay, Maguindanao Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr. herded them off to a hilly portion of Sitio Masalay in Barangay Salman, where they were brutally killed.

Mangudadatu was spared from the massacre after he sent his wife Genalyn and several female family members to file his candidacy. The media workers were part of the convoy to cover the filing.

The Ampatuan Massacre has since placed the Philippines in the list of the most murderous countries for journalists. The grave nature of the incident prompted free expression groups around the world to declare Nov. 23 as the International Day to End Impunity in 2011. (MindaNews)